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William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

THE TRAGEDY of “Hamlet,” the most renowned of English dramas, is based on a legend found in the “History of the Danes,” written by Saxo Grammaticus about 1200. It came to England through the French, and was already on the stage in a version now lost, before Shakespeare took it up. The earliest edition of our play was printed in a corrupt form in 1603, and was written at least as early as 1602. A more correct edition appeared in 1604, and further alterations appeared in the version printed in the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623. The author seems to have worked over and revised this tragedy more than any other of his dramas.

The main situation of the tragedy goes back to the prose tale. There we have a king murdered by his brother, who had previously seduced and has now married the queen; and the son of the king, aiming at revenge, finally achieving it, and using the device of pretended madness to protect himself in the meantime. The prototype of Polonius is killed while eavesdropping, but his character bears little resemblance to Shakespeare’s Lord Chamberlain; Ophelia and Horatio are merely hinted at; while Laertes, Fortinbras, and several of the minor characters, such as the grave-diggers and Osric, are altogether absent. The original Hamlet goes to England without interruption from pirates, witnesses the death of his two companions, returns and kills not only the king, but all his courtiers, goes to England again and marries two wives, one of whom betrays him to his death.

Other elements of the tragedy that are probably not due to Shakespeare’s invention have been gathered from a study of contemporary “tragedies of revenge.” How many of such additions were made by Shakespeare, how many by the author of the lost play, cannot be decided. But for those things which have raised “Hamlet” to its preeminent position in the history of literature,—the magnificence of the poetry, the amazing truth and subtlety of the psychology, and the intensity of the tragic emotion, it is not hard to assign the credit.